by Prog Nick
Can artists be intensely prolific, year in and year out, and still retain their quality of delivery despite high volumes of work? It certainly takes a special breed to do so – a breed that somehow, in all the abundance, still maintains the highest musical integrity. It seems like just the other day that Neal Morse, released ‘The Dreamer – Joseph: Part One’ though Frontier Records. That release, itself a follow-up to ‘Jesus Christ the Exorcist’, was very well received, and now, America’s most prolific Progressive Rock composer is back in short shrift with the second installment of the Biblical tale of Joseph.
Morse believes that the weight of the story, and the music that he has created around it, fully justify the two separate volumes of work. On listening to the now completed works in their entirety, I certainly agree. Part One concluded with Joseph being imprisoned in Egypt. In the second chapter, “The Restoration – Joseph: Part Two”, the story is told of Joseph’s tolerance and wisdom that lead to his freedom, his rise to political power and the reunification of his family. Once again, Morse assumes the role of Joseph, with an impressive array of guests taking the other roles. These fine vocalists and instrumentalists include Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard, Big Big Train) Ted Leonard (Spock’s Beard, Pattern-Seeking Animals), Matt Smith (Theocracy), Ross Jennings (Haken), Jake Livgren (Proto-Kaw, Kansas), Alan Morse (Spock’s Beard), Talon David and Will Morse. These artists combine with certain members of The Neal Morse Band (Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette) and with several Nashville-based session musicians, to deliver a busy composite feast of fine musical fare.
This album is very theatrical and dramatic, and in some places certainly bombastic, but in just the right measures to ensure that it never becomes cheesy. That is not an easy feat to achieve when there are full choirs, orchestras, a cast of dozens, an almost operatic approach and a Biblical story line that some would opine belongs more in an ecclesiastical setting than in contemporary music. But Morse’s faith and belief in the relevance of the story to today’s society shine through at all times and the result is a faithful dedication to the tale that is imbued by him with a modern musical flavor. The music is, for the most part, quite extraordinary, and in my opinion harkens back in many places to Morse’s earlier Spock’s Beard days. It certainly is Progressive Rock in the vein of what Morse has produced consistently since the 1990’s. This is so not only in respect of the songwriting, but also in respect of the performances and production.
There is something quite special that occurs when Neal Morse is given carte blanche and the conductor’s baton, and that special feeling is ubiquitous on this album. It may be true to say (as many have) that Morse allows repetition of themes and songwriting formulas in his various projects, but these themes are usually so good that honestly, no real Prog aficionado cares about that old chestnut any more, and Morse’s individual style has in any event become integral to his fans’ expectations. The sixteen tracks have more than enough innovation and make up an hour and fifteen minutes of varied and very eclectic music, always delivered with a flourish and with no small dose of drama and theatre.
‘Cosmic Mess’ serves as a fine overture to what is ultimately revealed to be a very Proggy series of songs. ‘My Dream’ is one of the highlights, featuring the type of syncopated and accented vocal chorus that only Neal Morse can provide. It is reminiscent of certain 1960’s vocal groups, but delivered with an individual Morse rhythmic twist. ‘Dreamer in the Jailhouse’ gets the story going with loads of complexity and shows that Morse absolutely revels in the opportunity to write for vocalists with ranges higher than his own, in this case for Haken’s Ross Jennings, who delivers an outstanding performance. ‘All Hail’ is a dramatic keyboard-based march that is perhaps the most discordant track on the album until the lazy, hazy breakdown that conjures (at least in my mind) a desert mirage. In it, Joseph’s pain is brilliantly expressed by Morse, both vocally and instrumentally. The build-up towards the end is reminiscent of many of Morse’s finest moments. Meanwhile, ‘The Argument’ is an impressive and quite unique mixture of Gentle Giant vocals and Kansas instrumentation, with an opening voice-over that portends death. ‘Make Like a Breeze’ sounds like Keith Emerson wrote a rocker for a new vocalist with a far higher range than he was used to (in this case Ted Leonard) and is compositionally not far off a particular shuffle groove on ‘Snow’. Then there is a reprise of the Overture on Part One (typically starting with a tympani roll) and raw, hard rock is again presented in ‘I Hate My Brothers’, perhaps the core of the album’s lyrical theme – (only Morse could make the line ‘I hate my brothers but I love my God’ work so sublimely well).
‘Guilty As Charged’ is a more gentle vocal and orchestral march, and is followed by four songs, ‘Reckoning’, ‘Bring Ben’, ‘Freedom Road’ and ‘The Brothers Repent’ that combine to form the epicenter of the album. The first two of those are particularly reminiscent of Spock’s Beard’s heyday and include homages to Gentle Giant and more accessible influences like Chicago, as well, it seems, as a homage to Spock’s Beard itself in the flamenco/brass section of ‘The Brother’s Repent’. The latter two songs are closer to Morse’s NMB-era compositions, in particular the magnificent ‘Freedom Road’. ‘In ‘Restoration’ Joseph is triumphantly reunited with his family with typical Morse-led drama played in complex parts in jazz-rock style, and Morse’s keyboard solo is particularly gratifying in this one. ‘Everlasting’ presents several (if not all) the vocalists in their finest fettle, dueling guitars, Moog, Hammond and percussion solos, and general Prog mayhem, after which ‘Dawning of a New Day’ ends the album in suitably grandiose yet familiar territory. The song possesses the type of shining positivity that is specific to Morse, who extends the message of the story into all humankind.
The album is dense, layered and sonorous. It is very eclectic, with a range of influences typical of the most ambitious of Morse’s past projects while still somehow finding new Morse compositional innovations. The production is immense and surprisingly creates space for every instrument to be heard with clarity, despite the layered onslaught created by the very close arrangements. Everything can be heard, and everything has its place. Dave Hardy’s cover is suitably tasteful and contemporary. ‘The Restoration – Joseph: Part Two’, then, is a fine package, and, coming so soon after its first chapter, really should not be as good as it is.
Neal Morse remains one of America’s most accomplished and prolific composers. His flair for the theatrical – never far away in all his work – truly comes to the fore in this context. The performances, both vocally and instrumentally, are true to Morse’s highly ambitious vision, and the production is excellent. Combined, these features breathe fabulous musical life into an otherwise familiar Biblical tale. The first volume was excellent, but this is even better. The combined ‘Joseph’ albums offer exceptional music that will engage both the Progressive and Melodic Rock communities alike.
It is a mystery to me how Neal Morse remains as prolific as he is, while consistently maintaining his legendary standards of quality. I suppose that this is simply a case of true musical integrity. An enduring talent is Mr Morse, and he has delivered yet another masterwork that will bring a fitting start to the no doubt excellent musical year that will be 2024.
Released on Jan 12th, 2024 on Frontiers Records
Order here: https://orcd.co/joseph2
The Restoration – Joseph: Part Two Track List:
1. Cosmic Mess
2. My Dream
3. Dreamer in the Jailhouse
4. All Hail
5. The Argument
6. Make Like a Breeze
7. Overture Reprise
8. I Hate My Brothers
9. Guilty as Charged
11. Bring Ben
12. Freedom Road
13. The Brothers Repent / Joseph Revealed
14. The Restoration
16. Dawning of a New Day (God Uses Everything for Good)
– Neal Morse / vocals, keyboards, guitars, drums & percussion
– Eric Gillette / guitars, vocals
– Bill Hubauer / keyboards, vocals
– Alan Morse / guitars, vocals
– Ted Leonard / vocals
– Matt Smith / vocals
– Jake Livgren / vocals
– Nick D’Virgilio / vocals
– Ross Jennings / vocals